I know of three fires, in single-family dwellings with attached garages that have resulted in fatalities, in Chesterfield County alone. The fires that I am thinking about have spanned a number of years, the most recent was a few Sundays ago, but all had devastating results. Each one of these fires was horrific to the families that lost loved ones. I will not speak of any one of these fires as being worse than any other. In addition to these fatal fires, there have been fires in homes, with attached garages, that have destroyed those homes.
Do we stop building homes with attached garages? No. However, we must figure out how to prevent these fires from occurring, and ensure that our homes are protected with the proper number and properly operating smoke alarms. New construction addresses this on both fronts. The wall between the garage and the living area is required to have thicker sheetrock. New homes are also required to have many more smoke alarms, all tied together in series, so if one activates, they all activate. One issue is that garages and attic spaces are not required, by code, to be protected by smoke alarms.
New construction is one thing, but what about homes built in the ‘60s or ‘70s. These homes were only required to have a battery-operated smoke alarm per level of the home. Battery-operated alarms do not work in series and therefore go off, one at a time. Another huge problem with battery-operated smoke alarms is that they can be easily disabled by removing the battery, or the battery just dies after a long period of chirping. You must ensure that you have an adequate number of smoke alarms to alert everyone in your house, and every one of those detectors must operate properly. The way to determine proper operation is to push the test button, at least monthly. Occasionally, you will want to vacuum your detectors, to remove any dust that has collected on them.
While we are on the subject, why not get up and test your smoke alarms right now.
Most garages become a catch all: a place to park the car, store your paint, store your lawn mower and gas can, charge your batteries, store wood, store your oils, pesticides and fertilizer and just about anything else that you can think of. The problem is that everything that is needed to start a fire is contained in that last sentence or in your garage.
Lawn mowers, gas cans, pesticides and fertilizers should not be stored in your attached garage, but should be stored in an outdoor storage shed or unattached garage. If you choose to store everything in your attached garage, then you must be strategic in where things are stored. Combustibles should be kept at least three feet from any heat source. If you have things plugged in, then you should unplug them before going to bed at night. You must make an inspection of your garage; keep it as clean and tidy as possible and address hazards constantly.
A fire that starts in the garage is going to burn up and out. It will eventually penetrate the wall or doorway into the living space, but it will also break through the roof and penetrate the house at upper levels. Incidentally, some garages have livable spaces, directly above the garage, that must be addressed. Your home escape plan must address a fire in the garage that probably removes one of your exits. If your house is on fire because of a fire in the garage, then you are going to have to use exit points away from the garage-end of the home. If this fire occurs while everyone is sleeping, then your smoke alarms are the only warning devices that will give you a chance to escape. If you sleep on the second or third story of your home, then how will you get out if a window is the only alternative? Do you have a rescue ladder? Have you ever taken it out of the box? Where are the small children, mobility-impaired persons and pets? Your escape plan must include everyone and you will probably have only one chance to get it right, if that.